This was originally going to be a three-part short story, the first part told from the woman’s viewpoint, the second from the man’s, the third from the nurse’s.

I stopped after the first. It felt like enough. Maybe one day I’ll finish it.

The Woman

First, the gift of the anonymous gown, stiff with cheap detergent, folded roughly. The taking off of one’s clothes, the folding in neat piles, as if being neat and tidy might be a good portent. Then, climbing on the too-narrow bed, bumping over on one’s backside, trying to get comfortable, to hit the little paper towel right in the middle. The shifting around, the crackle of plastic packets opening, the polite comments, the little awkward laughs that echo around the metal cabinets and lino floor. These things are familiar to me. I have been here before.

Then, lying back, head on the hard pillow, the surrender of opening, the giving over. The woman stationed between my legs on a swivel chair is not my lover, but she is here to do what I and my lover cannot. I lean up to look at her, straining the back of my neck, feeling the pull of related stomach and thigh muscles. Her head is between my knees, her parting revealing occasional strands of grey, insufficiently disguised. I did not shave my legs this morning. We are discovering one another. She tells me to lie back, take big breaths, relax. She explains what she is about to do in slow, small sentences, as if I am a child. It is obscene, and necessary.

My lover is here, and not here. He is by my head, holding my hand, listening to the nurse. He is due back at work in half an hour. He sniffs, coughs once, smiles at me, squeezes my hand. This time, is the unspoken statement suspended in the air between us. This time we are not desperate. We are not hopeful. We just are.

The squirt of lubricant on warm metal. She makes a joke. The shock of opening, of mechanical invasion, then she says, There we are, as one says to a child when one administers medicine. She spreads the speculum, screws it into place. I am opened wide, falsely lubricated, defenceless. Then a long pause, the sound of plastic ripping and a few short minutes of equipment assembly.

I wait, redundant.

The nurse stands, shows us a tiny test tube with such a small amount of grey liquid in the bottom that it is hard to believe her when she smiles and says, Twenty million. How about that? My lover confirms his name and birth date. I do the same. Another joke, this time about white mothers and black babies. My lover laughs too loudly. I feel ashamed.

Here we go, she says, the third person in this strange ménage-à-trois. The twinge of an expectant cervix. She misses. Tries again. It hurts deep inside, in the mysterious recess of my body that does not work as it should. Aha, she says. We’re through.

Another moment. The climax, perhaps; when life might begin to begin. Then the sense of withdrawal, of the ending of something. We’re done, she says. More moments of instrumental clatter.

The nurse hands me an envelope. She tells me I can lie still for 15 minutes then leave when I feel ready. “Good luck,” she says, as she wheels her trolley out of the room.

I open the envelope. It is a pre-printed template, but someone has added our names in blue biro in the gap after Dear. Dear [add name of patient and partner here], please arrange for a pregnancy blood test fourteen days from now. Why couldn’t she just tell me? I think. Do we have a dirty little secret? Should I feel ashamed? I do not ask these questions out loud.

My lover offers to stay with me, his mind already back at the office. I thank him, kiss him, tell him to go. My legs are still apart, my knees still bent. I picture my uterus, a sweet little bladder of stretched and tender flesh, millions and millions of sperm chasing each other, banging into walls, wondering what the hell just happened, which way to go. I can feel my left ovary aching, calling out a clue to them. I will ovulate in the next four to six hours. The nurse has told me so. It has been carefully calculated.

After my lover is gone I lie in the silence. I close my eyes, rise out of my body and float up to the ceiling. I look down upon my chubby body in the blue and white clinic gown that doesn’t quite cover my knees. I watch myself scratch my nose, wiggle my toes. I fart, and feel relieved that I didn’t do it 15 minutes ago. I start to get cold, so I reach my right arm awkwardly around to reach the thin blue blanket hanging on the back of the chair where my lover sat. From up here I can see the vague, faded stains on the hospital grade lino, the dust balls forgotten in the corners. I can hear the nurses just outside the door discussing what team is going to win the netball final tonight, and what they’re going to have for lunch. A phone rings. There is a burst of laughter from an unexpected television.

I start to cry, and I watch as my nose turns red. I can see the tears slipping down the sides of my cheeks, into my hair, onto the pillowcase. My tissues are in my handbag, which is out of my reach, on the other side of the room next to the chair cradling my folded-up clothes.